History and Disability Studies

Evolving Perspectives

Authored by: Anne Borsay

Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies

Print publication date:  February  2012
Online publication date:  March  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415574006
eBook ISBN: 9780203144114
Adobe ISBN: 9781136502170


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Despite physical and mental impairment being central to the human condition, disability history has only recently emerged as a vibrant field of intellectual enquiry. As the late Paul Longmore and Laura Umansky argued in their seminal edited collection, the reasons for this late development are bound up with the low status that societies have imposed upon disabled people. Historians have assumed that disabled people are too marginal to generate significant primary sources. Medicalization has construed them as the passive victims of biological deficit. And this personalization has promoted ‘individual case histories’ at the expense of social, cultural and political analysis. But most pervasive is the ‘existential anxiety’ that comes from challenging the norms of independence, autonomy and control (Longmore and Umansky 2001: 6–9). These obstacles have been most effectively overcome in the United States (US). From the late 1970s – following a trajectory similar to women’s history (Purvis 1995) – disability activists engaged in ‘heritage hunting’, celebrating the achievements of those who had triumphed over impairment. During the 1980s, these ‘compensatory’ histories, which ‘unwittingly’ confirmed mainstream stereotypes, were joined by studies of ‘abuse, discrimination, and oppression’. More recently, attention has turned to ‘the cultures, values, and activism of disabled people themselves’ and to the implications of factors such as gender, class and race for their experiences (Longmore and Umansky 2001: 18). Furthermore, disability is now being promoted as a primary category of historical analysis that is foundational to both cultural life and material living (Kudlick 2003).

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